Old Homes of New Americans

Some Polish Writers
Chapter 5

The Prince of Historical Novelists -- Mickiewicz, Poland's Greatest Poet -- Anton Malczewski and his Writings -- A Polish Tolstoy -- His Simplicity and Eccentricities -- Kras zewski and his Many Novels.


It does not come within the scope of this book to describe at length the literature or social life of Poland. It would require many volumes larger than this to do justice to these themes. But they should not be entirely overlooked, for they have a bearing upon the life of America's Polish citizens, and we cannot fully understand them if we ignore these sides of their national life.

The literary proclivities of educated Poles have always been marked. They honor their men of letters, and set up beautiful monutnents to them in their market-places. One of the most popular novelists of modern times is Sienkiewicz. Indeed, he is the prince of the historical school of novelists. Few have approached him in vividness of description or in thrilling narrative, and the tone of his writings is noble and exalted, and often profoundly religious.

The greatest poet of Poland is Mickiewicz, who, though living in Poland's darkest day, has left imperishable pictures of Polish life and manners. He has been declared the equal of Wordsworth or Shelley in his description of natural scenery.

I will quote some lines translated from another lesser-known poet, Anton Malczewski, who died when he was only thirty-three, and whose verses became immensely popular after his death:

" Cossack on thy flying steed, whither art thou bounding?
Is't the fleet hare thou wilt catch on the steppe surrounding?
Or dost in thy fancy taste liberty the sweetest?
Or wouldst try the Ukraine winds which of you is fleetest?
Maybe thou dost soothe thy soul with that song's sad cadence,
Thinking of thy far-off love, comeliest of maidens.
O'er thy brow the cap is pressed, slackened is the bridle;
Clouds of dust along thy path show thy course not idle.
Lo I that sunburnt face of thine with what ardor glowing!
How thine eyes enraptured shine, joy its sparkles throwing;
Thy wild steed obeys like thee; then fleet as the swallow,
With his eager neck outstretched, leaves the wind to follow.
Out! poor peasant, from the road, lest a woe betide thee;
Lest the courier spill thy goods, 'yea! and override thee.
And thou dark bird of the sky everything that greetest,
Tho' around thou wheel'st thy Aight, man and steed are fleetest.
Croak thou may'st, but croak'st in vain, of ill-luck the prophet;
Hide thy secret -- for he's gone -- thou 'It tell nothing of it.
On lit by the setting sun; onward ever driven;
Like some messenger he seems, sent to men from heaven.
You may hear his horse's hoof echo half a mile hence;
Over all that mighty steppe lies a brooding silence.
Never merry sound of knight nor of squire careering,
Sad wind whispering in the wheat, that is all you're hearing.
In among the grass of graves, wizard voices sighing
Where with wither'd wreaths the brave all unreck'd are lying.
'T is a music wild and sweet, voice of Polish nation,
Which preserves her memory fond for each generation.
Only from the wild flowers now they their splendor borrow;
Ah I what heart that knows their fate, feels no pang of sorrow!"

Lelewel was another interesting character of Poland of the nineteenth century. His works on history, ancient geography, and numismatics were recognized in many lands. He seems to have been a sort of Polish Tolstoy, living in the style of the poorest artisans, though he was honored and revered throughout his own and other countries. He was librarian of the University of Warsaw, and afterwards a Professor in Wilno; but political troubles drove him to Brussels, where he lived for nearly a generation in voluntary poverty, being willing to take only a franc a day for his work when engaged by the city of Brussels to catalogue and arrange the very valuable collection of coins belonging to the city, a work which only a specialist like himself could accomplish.

The following account of Lelewel's simplicity and eccentricity is entertaining:

He lived worse than the poorest Brussels artisan, but would never receive any contribution from his richer countrymen. As he sat in the winter in a room that could not be warmed, a Polish lady during his absence caused a stove to be put in; but when he came back, he turned it out of the room -- just as Dr. Johnson did with the shoes which had been given him -- and only at last allowed a pipe to be introduced into his own from a neighboring room, which was well warmed. He frequently, however, opened the windows during the severest frost. Coffee was a great refreshment to him, but he enjoyed it only once a week; on other days he breakfasted on bread and milk. When Poles who visited him entitled him "Your Excellency," as he had formerly been a minister, he forbade it, and would not allow himself to be called "Mr." but only "Citizen." During the morning hours he sat at his work with bare feet in felt shoes and in an old gray cloak, with a pocket-handkerchief, which had at one time been white, but had now become brown, pinned to his knees. This he wished to have conveniently at hand, as he was a great snuff-taker. His linen, however, was always very clean. At midday he went dressed in a blue workman's blouse to a poor little public-house to get a humble meal among the artisans who frequented it.

Many Polish authors have done excellent work along lines of historical research, and her novelists are by no means least among the world writers of fiction. It is needless to tell American readers of the vigor and deep interest of Sienkiewicz's historical novels, to which I have before alluded, but they are not so well acquainted with the works of Kraszewski, who also wrote many historical novels. When he had been in the field of authorship for fifty years, his published works of all kinds reached the amazing number of two hundred and fifty titles.

It is evident that our Polish citizens in America come from a land where literature is honored and cultivated, and we may well believe that in the future they will add not a little to the value of the literary output of America.

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